When I told my coworkers what I was using some vacation time to do this past weekend, and that it involved sleeping in tents, waking up before 5 a.m. and running all day, they told me it sounded like boot camp.
But to me, and hundreds of other crazy runners, that’s all part of the beauty of the Great Lakes Relay — a three-day, 275-mile relay race through the wooded dirt roads and trails of northern Michigan.
GLR has been around for the past 30 years and throughout that time has become somewhat of a bucket list event for runners in Michigan and across the midwest.
I first heard about it in college while running with the club team at Michigan State University and took part in the race a couple of years during that time. Prior to this year, I hadn’t done it since 2015 (partly due to being busy, but mostly because of not training enough), but I decided to put some miles in and make my triumphant return this summer.
The way I like to describe GLR to people who have never done it before, is that it’s a little bit like The Amazing Race on CBS ... but for running.
Each team has up to 10 runners on it, and there are about 20 legs of the race each day, meaning each runner will typically take two legs a day. Leg 1 goes off at 6 a.m. and this year Days 1 and 2 went about 100 miles, while Day 3 was about 75.
The route changes each year, but this year’s race started in Grayling and ended in Onaway on Day 1, ran back to Grayling on Day 2 and shot across the state to finish on a beach on Lake Michigan on Day 3.
You can divvy up the legs however you want, as long as everyone runs at least 24 miles during the three days and you make the exchanges at the specified locations.
What makes it so much like The Amazing Race, though, is as soon as you high-five your teammate at a leg exchange, you’re hopping in a car to drive another teammate to the start of their leg. You can have up to three cars to get people to where they need to go, but with limited cell service in the woods, a lot of planning ahead goes into it.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up one of the biggest keys to the race — following directions. A lot of the routes are on narrow hiking trails through the woods, so carrying the route maps and directions on your runs, which are provided by the organizers, is of the utmost importance. Take a wrong turn and you could be costing your team precious time.
My favorite part about GLR, though, is the people. All throughout the weekend, I see dozens of friends and familiar faces in the running community, whether it’s old high school rivals, friends I ran with on MSU’s club team, or some dude I met at a random Saturday morning 5K in 2013. And one of the funnest parts of the whole weekend is the party that goes on at the finish line on the shores of Lake Michigan on Sunday afternoon.
GLR also has runners from all levels. The top teams are typically stacked with former collegiate superstars blowing away the field, but there’s also teams made up of high school runners, beginners, senior citizens ... you name it.
And sure it’s competitive, but nearly everyone is so encouraging of each other. After all, like I said, a lot of us are friends and have known each other for years.
My team is somewhat of middling squad of hard-working underdogs. This year’s version of our team featured only one person who ran on an actual varsity college team. The rest of us ran at the club level.
Nevertheless, we’re usually among the top teams every year. This year we placed eighth out of 48 teams in the open division (teams with three or fewer women). Our goal every year is top five, so you can win and get your name inscribed on a stein. We’ve taken sixth a few times, but we’ll keep working.
In short, GLR represents everything great about the running community, and while I’ve been sore and trying to catch up on sleep for days, I’ll try to make sure I’m ready to do it all over again next year.